Ever heard of a telethon where the goal wasn't to raise money, but to offer help?
That's exactly what happened at the VA Salt Lake City Health Care System's "Salute to Veterans" telethon. For nearly 13 hours on Veterans Day, volunteers manned phone lines and e-mail inboxes to address Veterans' questions and concerns.
"The phone rang off the hook," said Jill Atwood, Public Affairs Officer at VA Salt Lake City. Volunteers answered 400 calls and e-mails. "We wanted to tear down the walls of the VA, to show compassion and be transparent," Atwood said. "We wanted to show that we care and that we're here for our Veterans."
Her background in television and media naturally prompted Atwood to come up with the idea of the telethon. She convinced the Utah National Guard's major general to appear on TV and radio spots, then partnered with a CBS affiliate channel and a local Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom (OEF/OIF) support group to help carry out the project. Atwood's final step was recruiting volunteers to answer Veterans' questions on the busy day.
|Jeff Bird mans the phones during the Salute to Veterans telethon|
Convincing the Skeptical Veteran
Two of those volunteers, Jeff Bird and J.D. Milne, were Veterans from separate eras who came together at the telethon to help their "brothers in arms," as Milne puts it.
Bird, a Vietnam Vet, is 100% disabled and spends most of his time in a wheelchair or with a cane because he is partially paralyzed. Although he suffers from chronic severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Bird has still managed to volunteer for VA events for the past 15 years.
Because the PTSD groups at the Salt Lake City and Denver VA facilities supported him, he wants to make sure other Veterans know this care and attention is out there for them. "At my first PTSD group, within 10 minutes, I felt like I'd come home," he said. "We were hugging, laughing, telling jokes. It was amazing to see all these walls crumble."
Bird got the first phone call at the telethon. It was from a woman whose son had recently returned from Iraq. "She was at her wits' end because his behavior was so outrageous. He was out of control," said Bird. "But he didn't want anything to do with the VA."
Bird asked to speak with him. "I told her son there were tons of Vets who went through the same experience. They're going to help you. Just come down to the VA, walk in the front door, and go into Emergency. These people are not here to hurt you. They are here because they care, so there's nothing to be afraid of. Just take it one step at a time."
Hours later, the woman called back. Thanks to Bird, her son had gone to the VA hospital.
|A reporter interviews J.D. Milne, left, about his service experience while volunteers answer phone calls|
"You Want to Be the Tough Guy"
Milne, an OIF Veteran, came to the telethon because he wanted to show the audience that VA services benefit more than just older Veterans. He is a young guy with friendly features, an average-looking guy who certainly doesn't fit the typical World War II Veteran patient stereotype.
When Atwood asked him to volunteer for the event, he said yes. "I'd heard horror stories about Vets hurting themselves," said Milne, adding that some Veterans don't want to reach out for help. "Anyone who's been to war knows you want to be the tough guy," he said.
Milne thought he was okay when he returned to the States in 2007, but his family grew concerned after about a year. "I had anxiety and panic attacks," said Milne. "I didn't know how to handle myself. The VA changed everything for me. They did tests, put me in the right programs, and helped me out."
He was diagnosed with PTSD, panic disorder, and mild traumatic brain injury. "I had a good experience with my unit overall," he said, "But you have some stuff you deal with when you get back, like ways to react to people and being around crowds." He goes to a support group every Monday at the VA.
Milne answered phone calls and e-mails, punctuated by periodic interviews with TV and radio reporters. He worked alongside a team of psychologists and VA representatives who addressed every topic from Agent Orange to health benefits.
"I loved that I was in the Marine Corps and I love America," said Milne. "The telethon was a way to give back. I can't serve anymore because I'm a disabled Vet, but if I can help change one life, that's enough to get me out there to do that."
By Stephanie Strauss, VA Staff Writer